Tuesday, February 7, 2012
As we move closer to the start of Season 2 for Orlando City SC we take a look back at the original Orlando Lions soccer team. If you missed Part 1 of our series make sure to read-up on the founding of the team and the first season. In Part 2 we pick-up the story in 1987 where the team, much like Orlando City of today, is coming off a success first season and looking towards their future in professional soccer. We have several more articles that we are working on for this series and hope to post them over the next few weeks leading up to Orlando City's season kick-off. Remember there are a lot of great opportunities to support the team during the pre-season including the upcoming Disney Pro Soccer Classic at the end of the month especially the March 1st match with MLS commissioner, Don Garber, in attendance. Get out there and make history today; leave us to write about the history that of the past!
Orlando Lions: Part 2 (1987)
The Orlando Lions had just finished their inaugural 1986 season as an amateur club, holding their own against professional first division sides from all over the world. The next step for Dillon was finding a fulltime league for his Lions to play in.
His plan was to create a regional “Southern League” that would have a mixture of professional and amateur teams, so his Lions could retain its amateur status and eliminate player salaries. F.C. Orlando did not have the funds to pay the players and there was the fear that investors would not have the patience needed to build a fan base and develop the squad. Slowly building the team and a fan base were important to Dillon, who was looking three to four years down the road before turning professional. The teams initially contacted for the “Southern League” were from Jacksonville, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Houston, Charlotte, and Atlanta.
It was around this same time in late 1986, that Clive Toye (former General Manager of the New York Cosmos) and Chuck Blazer (current General Secretary of CONCACAF and member of the FIFA Executive Committee) were attempting to create a new professional league along the east coast of the U.S. Having watched the NASL meltdown from the inside, Toye was determined to create a league much in line with Dillon’s vision – American players, reasonable salaries and slow growth. However, it was this dedication to do things right that made the interested clubs from New Jersey, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Virginia, Albany, NY, and Philadelphia, to decide not to rush, and wait till the spring of 1988 to start the American Soccer League (ASL).
So, Dillon and the Orlando Lions had an entire year to continue playing together and improving their game before joining the league. This time was vital for Dillon because the ASL was going to be a league composed of professional teams, which meant that Dillon would have to find investors to finance the team. It also meant that Dillon would have to accelerate his timeline for the Lions.
Pro Soccer Challenge Series 1987
In the meantime, Dillon had again set up summer exhibition games for the Lions, which included an eight-game Pro Soccer Challenge Series. The Series’ highlight was a July 4 match against the Brazilian Masters, composed of former Brazilian National Team players, to be played at the Citrus Bowl – the new home pitch of the Lions. The Series would start with home and away games against their new rival Tampa Bay Rowdies.
When the Rowdies arrived at the Citrus Bowl to kick off the Lions’ 1987 season, they were met with a familiar face. Former Trinity Prep and UCF All-American, Winston DuBose, had returned home to Orlando after spending the majority of his professional career with the Rowdies. Winston was not the only highly decorated player on the Lions. Other standouts on the team included striker Rony Francois (UCF All-American), midfielder Oyvind Klausen (Rollins All-American), and defender Lou Karbiener (Penn State All-American).
Before a crowd of 2,060 fans, the Lion’s Bruce Bellinger scored two goals and DuBose made 11 saves on the way to a 2-0 victory. The win was an important early season confidence boost as well as sweet revenge against the Rowdies who had won both meetings the previous year. The high was short lived. The following week on the away leg of the matchup, the Lions gave back a bit of momentum with a 2-2 tie. Momentum they would need for their next opponent, English First Division side Norwich City.
Keeping with the trend set the previous year, Orlando was facing a side hitting on all cylinders. The Norwich City Canaries had just gained promotion after finishing at the top of the table in the English Second Division. They would go on to a 5th place final standing the following year in the English First Division (the highest level of English soccer at the time), just below Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, and six spots above Manchester United! And as they showed the year before, the Lions gave the English professionals all they could want. After going into halftime tied 1-1, the Florida summer heat and humidity coupled with the interplay between Lion strikers Rony Francois and Keith Buckley began to take their toll on the Canaries. Both Francois and Buckley finished with a goal and assist apiece in the second half, and the Lions went on to upset Norwich 4-2.
The next three opponents for Orlando were domestic teams from Houston (Dynamos), New Jersey (Americans), and Atlanta (Demographic) in a home and away series. The Lions went 2-2 over this stretch, beating the Americans, losing to the Dynamo and splitting wins with the Demographics.
Then came the Fourth of July match against the Brazilian Masters. Their roster included Rivelino and Edu from the fabled 1970 World Cup Champions, in addition to more recent Brazilian National Team players. This was not only a big moment in Orlando soccer history, but also a big deal to the fans back in Brazil, where the match was being televised live. As you could expect, the awestruck Lions were initially intimidated and gave the Brazilians too much respect and space. After 18 minutes, the Samba Kings were awarded a penalty, which they easily slotted home for a 1-0 lead. Once the Lions settled in, they realized they could play with these guys if they upped the tempo, and chances started to come their way. Just before halftime, Keith Buckley latched on to a Declan Link cross, which he headed home to equalize the game at 1-1. Orlando surprisingly went on to control the second half, having three shots bounce of the woodwork. However, they were not able to produce another goal, and the game ended in a draw at the Citrus Bowl in front of 3,315 fans.
Coming off the emotional high of playing and tying the Brazilians, the Lions had to get themselves pumped up again for the final game of the Series, and the season, against Herfolge FC from the Danish First Division. Playing in heavy rains, the Lions outshot the Danes 13-11, but were unlucky on the night, giving up an 85th minute header off a corner kick and losing 1-0. This brought their season record to 4-3-2; a second consecutive winning season playing against much higher seasoned (and much higher paid) teams. Dillon was overjoyed with the team’s effort and even stated publicly that he never would have predicted a winning record on the season…the Lions continued to surprise.
Selling a Dream
With the season over, Dillon could now focus on getting their house in order so they could join the newly created ASL. To avoid the pitfalls of the NASL, the new league required teams to provide financial proof that they could operate for two full seasons. This required an estimated $500,000 to $750,000, which F.C. Orlando did not have. And they needed to have it by the end of October. To make this dream a reality, Dillon would have to bring on an investor and give up ownership of his Lions.
With two days remaining before the Halloween deadline, Dillon and F.C. Orlando found an investor and sold 90 percent of the Lions to Soccer Services Inc. (SSI) out of Tallahassee. This looked to be a good fit for the Lions – SSI was a private corporation whose goal was to “provide quality resources for the development and promotion of soccer at all ages and ability levels.” For many years, they had been running soccer clinics and camps throughout the Southeast. The Chairman of the Board for SSI was Colin Phipps, a wealthy businessman and landowner, who had committed more than 130 acres of land in the Tallahassee area to building 12 soccer fields. The Lions now had everything the ASL was looking for – they had the money, they were in the right area of the country (east coast), and they had proven they could play. They also had a person passionate about Orlando soccer in the front office and on the field, as Mark Dillon was kept on as President and Head Coach.
On Halloween Day 1987, the Orlando Lions were unanimously voted in to the ASL. The inaugural season of the ASL would consist of ten teams – 4 of them from Florida – all of them located along the east coast. The close proximity of the teams along with the relatively short playing season (twenty games played from April to August) would help reduce travel costs. Other league guidelines included a $75,000 salary cap and it restricted the number of foreign players to three per team for the first year and only two the following.
Dillon’s dream of professional soccer in Orlando was coming true less than two years after fielding his first team of local college players. Now he had to coach his young players up to compete in the professional league and find fans to fill the Citrus Bowl stands.